Elections are often cleansing moments setting the country on a fresh path powered by people freely choosing their leaders – and those leaders accepting the results.
But the final hours of this midterm campaign laid bare the polarized electoral environment, the specter of political violence and the possibility of disputed races – all of which have raised the stakes of the first nationwide vote since former President Donald Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election and have augured an acrimonious two years to come.
Republicans predict they will win the House of Representatives on Tuesday – a victory that, if it materializes, would give them the power to throttle President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda and clamp an investigative vise on his White House. The Senate is, meanwhile, on a knife edge with a handful of races in states like Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania likely to decide who wins the majority.
Above all, the midterm campaign turned on the cost of living crisis, with polls showing the economy by far the most important issue for voters, who are still waiting for the restoration of normality after a once-in-a-century pandemic that Biden had promised in 2020.
A gusher of news on job losses just before polls opened, including in the tech industry, worsened jitters about a slowdown that could destroy one of the bright spots of the Biden economy – historically low unemployment. Americans are already struggling with higher prices for food and gasoline and now must cope with the Federal Reserve hikes in interest rates that not only make credit card debt, buying a home and rent more expensive, but could tip the economy into a recession.
The economic situation threatens to set up a classic midterm election rebuke for a first-term president – and in some ways, this would be a sign that democracy is working. Elections have for generations been a safety valve for the public to express dissent with the country’s direction.
If they lose on Tuesday, Democrats will have to accept the result, regroup and try again in two years to convince the nation that their policies will chart the way out of crises. And Republicans, if they take majorities in Congress, will be able to argue voters have given them a mandate to fix things where Biden has failed. But after repeated elections in which disgruntled voters have punished the party with the most power, the GOP could find its own performance on the ballot in two years.
While that continuum is the essence of democracy, the run-up to these midterms has also highlighted the depth of the nation’s self-estrangement in a political era in which both sides seem to think victory for the other is tantamount to losing their country.
In recent days, it’s been impossible to ignore the reality of a weakened presidency, a viciousness in political debate and the threat to free and fair elections posed by scores of Republican candidates running on a platform of Trump’s 2020 election lies.
A twice-impeached ex-president views a return to power
Tuesday looks set to be a tough day for Biden. The president did not spend the final hours of the campaign battling to get vulnerable Democrats over the line in a critical swing state. Instead, he was in the liberal bastion of Maryland – a safe haven where his low approval ratings likely won’t hurt Democrats running for office. While he did stump for Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman over the weekend, the venue of his final event encapsulated his drained political juice as he contemplates a 2024 reelection campaign.
“I think it’s going to be tough,” Biden told reporters. “I think we’ll win the Senate and I think the House is tougher,” he said, admitting life would become “more difficult” for him if the GOP takes control of Congress.
On the eve of an election in which he is not on the ballot, Trump made it all about himself – even as he claimed he didn’t want to overshadow Republican candidates. At a rally ostensibly for GOP Senate nominee J.D. Vance in Ohio, Trump unleashed a dystopian, self-indulgent dirge of a speech laced with demagoguery, exaggerated claims that America was in terminal decline, and outright falsehoods about the 2020 election. And he laid the groundwork to proclaim he is the victim of totalitarian state-style persecution if he is indicted in several criminal probes into his conduct.
Trump also vowed to make “a very big announcement” at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on November 15, which appears to be the worst kept secret in politics – that he will seek another term in the White House. The fact that a twice-impeached president, who left office in disgrace after legitimizing violence as a form of political expression, has a good chance of winning underscores the turbulence of our time.
The false reality that Trump spun over his baseless claims about a stolen election and the scores of election deniers carrying the Republican flag only validated Biden’s warnings in the midterm campaign that democracy is on the ballot – even if most voters appear more concerned with the high cost of feeding their families than the somewhat esoteric debates about the state of the nation’s founding values.
The shadow of violence
The shadow of violence that has hung over American policies since Trump incited the Capitol insurrection was exacerbated as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recalled the moment of trauma when she was told by police that her husband Paul had been attacked with a hammer. In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, she also condemned certain Republicans for joking about it.
“In our democracy, there is one party that is doubting the outcome of the election, feeding that flame, and mocking any violence that happens. That has to stop,” Pelosi said.
Trump only added to that political fury when he referred to Pelosi as “an animal” in his rally in Ohio.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is the likely next speaker if Republicans net the five seats they need for the House majority, blamed Democrats for heated political rhetoric as he laid out an aggressive agenda, targeting border security and relentless investigations in an exclusive interview with CNN. He did not rule out impeaching Biden, a step radical members of his conference are already demanding.
“We will never use impeachment for political purposes,” McCarthy told CNN’s Melanie Zanona. “That doesn’t mean if something rises to the occasion, it would not be used at any other time.”
And Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who says he’s in line to be chairman of the permanent subcommittee on investigations if he wins reelection and Republicans take the Senate, said he’d use the power granted him, in what is likely to be a very narrowly decided election, to further crank up the partisan heat in Washington.
“I would be like a mosquito in a nudist colony. It would be a target-rich environment,” Johnson said.
There’s something magical about democratic elections, when differences are exposed in debates and fierce campaigns. But there’s mostly, until now, been an expectation that both sides would then abide by the verdict of the people.
That can no longer be taken for granted and there’s a sense of foreboding that is hanging over voting on Tuesday.